As a kid, broccoli was a central part of my diet. My parents loved broccoli and by default, so did I. We ate it in salads and pastas a couple of times a week. I have never given much thought to broccoli before, or really, to the origin of any vegetable. I show up at the market and it shows up on my plate later that evening.
With the rise of processed foods, high fructose corn syrup, and mega supermarkets, the old saying “from the farm to the table” seems to have been lost on my generation. The push for organic and sustainable farming has shed light on the fact that many of us don’t actually know where our food is coming from.
I was surprised to learn that broccoli was actually introduced to the United States by Italian immigrants. Broccoli was cultivated in New York in the early 1900s and later planted in California in the 1920s. Grown in central and southern Italy due to the regions mild climate, broccoli is considered a ‘cool weather’ crop, best during its peak season of October through April. This vegetable is found in many southern Italian dishes, perhaps most famously paired with orecchiette.
Orecchiette, literally meaning “little ears,” is the pride pasta of Puglia, and has been a part of Italian gastronomy since the mid-sixteenth century. Orecchiette is made of three types of wheat flour and has a wrinkled surface, perfect for holding sauce.
In Puglia this pasta is served with broccoli, sometimes mushrooms and a meat ragout. It can be tossed with olive oil and dressed with anchovies, or mixed with broad beans (fava) and ricotta cheese, depending on the season.
Orecchiette can also be served with broccoli rabe, or rapini. Rapini has small green buds that resemble broccoli heads, but is actually a member of the mustard family. Rapini is said to be a descendant of the turnip and has a similar nutty flavor, which pairs nicely with chewy orecchiette.
As with all Italian dishes, the options are endless, and every family has a twist that makes their dish the best. I was told during my stay in Florence that Italian dishes are made with only a handful of ingredients, usually no more than eight. Menus change as frequently as the weather and people, in keeping with tradition, honor the flavors of the season.